Speaker sets out 10 areas of possible reform

26 March 2010

Commons Speaker, John Bercow, was guest speaker of the Henley Business School at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London last night.

Below is a copy of his speech to an audience of business leaders which looked at what future reform of the House of Commons might look like:

"It is a pleasure and a privilege to be addressing this audience this evening. The reputations of the Henley Business School and of the RSA, are second to none and both have benefited from distinct and dynamic leadership. These are institutions which have established themselves as hubs for interesting ideas and it is in that spirit that I want to put forward a number of thoughts of my own on this occasion.

My core challenge is to answer the seemingly simple but in fact fiendishly complicated question: “What sort of House of Commons should we want?”. This would be an implausible exercise to undertake without some reflections on what has occurred to and in the House of Commons in the course of the past year and on the change which has already taken place. This has been more profound than is often recognised. Although it was change born of intense institutional crisis it has, nonetheless, produced a situation in which far more reform has been embraced and enacted in the past nine months than perhaps in the previous nine decades. It also allows us to look forward to the next Parliament – irrespective of the party political arithmetic – with a cautious confidence that further and extremely welcome change to strengthen the House of Commons will be witnessed.

Let us, however, start by reminding ourselves of what has happened in the recent past. It was a year ago this weekend that the very beginnings of what would become the expenses scandal first came to light. I will not dwell on details but historians of this ghastly, grim and grotesque episode will recall that it involved the Sunday Express, the then Home Secretary, her husband, some embarrassing and inappropriate movies watched at public expense and an 88 pence bath plug. A few weeks later the dam that had been the old parliamentary allowances system was less breached than destroyed as the Daily Telegraph started to publish that which the House had unwisely first sought to keep secret for far too long and had then intended to publish only with a degree of redaction which invited and certainly secured ridicule.

The public backlash from this was so intense that the party leaders and the Members Estimate Committee rushed to implement changes which acknowledged the extent of past abuse, but even this did not prevent my predecessor feeling compelled to retire. An election for Speaker followed in which many of the candidates, myself included, sought to offer a means of obtaining intelligent closure on the expenses debacle, pledged to act as a cheerleader for significant internal reform to the procedures and powers of the House of Commons and, to varying extents, flagged an intention to seek to reconnect Parliament with the public through an enhanced outreach programme. All of this was, in a sense, easily said. There was no certainty at all that it would actually be done.

I would, if I may, like to take a little time here to outline exactly what has been achieved in all three of those areas – closure on expenses, internal reform and the outreach initiative - not least because they have been the core of my personal agenda.

In June last year when I became Speaker the quest for intelligent closure on the expenses scandal appeared far from straightforward. A number of innovations had been made but it was not clear if they connected with each other and, indeed, there was a real risk that they would compromise the coherence of the overall effort. Sir Thomas Legg had been commissioned to conduct a comprehensive review of all claims from the 2004-2009 era with a wide and, to be candid, somewhat vague mandate and an initially ludicrously optimistic timetable for when he might report along with much muttering from Members of Parliament that they would not repay money if that was what was asked of them.

Sir Christopher Kelly and his colleagues at the Committee on Standards in Public Life had been urged to extend and intensify their investigation into the old expenses regime and make recommendations for change. Yet, at the same time, the Parliamentary Standards Act hastily enacted last July had called for the creation from scratch of an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to investigate and make recommendations in precisely the same territory as that rightly patrolled by Sir Christopher. There was the danger of a nightmare scenario in which either Sir Thomas was accused of a whitewash or he would issue a set of requests for repayment which were ignored by MPs to the adverse reputation of the House. In addition, the concern was that the Kelly report and the ultimate IPSA settlement would prove to be irreconcilable with each other.

We have, despite the many hazards, very, very nearly achieved intelligent closure on the expenses catastrophe. Sir Thomas Legg conducted what I think was universally accepted to be a commendably thorough review of past claims, and he made recommendations which involved more than 350 MPs being asked for more than £1 million in repayments, a credibly high set of numbers. Although his conclusions were immensely controversial within the House, especially on the vexed matter of the costs of cleaning and gardening, every single serving MP has made the repayment requested or organised to do so before the end of July. This was far from an inevitable outcome but it has happened and not by accident but by design.

We are also almost at the hour where future expenses arrangements will be framed. I appointed an exceptionally able interim chief executive for IPSA, Andrew McDonald, in the depths of August and he faced what seemed the impossible task of finding a chairman and a board for IPSA, settling on a set of interim proposals, taking that package out for meaningful public consultation immediately afterwards and then constructing a full-blown and fresh structure and system for expenses which would be rendered public before the general election. At any point this almost insanely ambitious project could have come off the rails but thanks to the outstanding leadership shown by Mr McDonald and Sir Ian Kennedy, the Chairman of IPSA, that structure and system will be published on Monday and the public and parliamentary candidates alike will know precisely where they stand before the election is called and nomination papers have to be completed. This was, once again, far from an inevitable outcome but it has happened and, once again, not by accident but by design.

The link between the expenses fiasco and the internal reform of the House might not seem an obvious one. On the face of it, they are and were completely separate issues. The silver lining in the immensely dark expenses cloud, however, was that in the crisis atmosphere of last summer it was accepted that the woes of the House extended far beyond the immediate disaster of the Daily Telegraph’s revelations and that the creation of a clean expenses system would not be enough either to restore the standing of the House of Commons with the outside world or to correct the sentiment held by MPs as much as the electorate that the House had become an increasingly irrelevant and hence increasingly inconsequential institution. Something had to be done and there was both a direct and indirect role for the Speaker to play in this.

The direct aspect included making use of the authority that the Speaker has to introduce change by himself in the business of the House and on the parliamentary estate through his responsibilities as Chairman of the House of Commons Commission. Within the chamber, it has been my consistent objective to empower the backbench MP by enhancing his or her opportunities to scrutinise the executive. This has been achieved partly by the drive to speed up parliamentary business and ensure that more questions are asked of ministers by backbench MPs and that as far as possible all of those who wish to speak in debates on the floor can expect to enjoy that chance.

A vital weapon in this regard has been the Urgent Question which I have quite deliberately sought almost to reinvent. An Urgent Question is a device by which any member can seek to compel a minister to come to the House of Commons to address an issue of importance which has suddenly emerged. It is meant to be a precise and forensic parliamentary instrument but one which if employed in a sophisticated fashion can be extremely revealing. Since I have become Speaker I have allowed some 21 such questions – or roughly one for every sitting week since last June – which compares with a mere two Urgent Questions in the 12 months previously. This has had an interesting side-effect. I have noticed that the Government has become more willing to volunteer statements of its own rather than have an Urgent Question imposed on it. In addition, aware as I was of widespread dissatisfaction at the speed at which Written Questions from MPs to ministers were being answered, I have introduced a tracking system for these important parliamentary questions which is already producing results in persuading departments to respond with more vigour.

I have also sought to modernise the parliamentary estate in a number of other ways. For more than 30 years the House has accepted the principle of a nursery at Westminster but persistently failed to introduce one in practice. Last December, the House of Commons Commission unanimously agreed to support a nursery on the site favoured by Ofsted and work is well advanced to ensure that it is opened in September. That this has been criticised in some quarters because it involves the closure of a bar in a place hardly notorious for its shortage of watering holes is, I concede, instructive but what matters is that provision of what would be considered a basic facility in most of modern Britain has been agreed and will be created. In a similar vein, I am constantly searching for devices to open up the Palace of Westminster to the widest possible public. We have, for example, changed the rules so that not only MPs and senior officials but members of the public can apply to hold their civil wedding ceremony or civil partnership at the House of Commons and the very first of these will take place this weekend. This summer will see a major expansion of the public tours available with Saturday visits coming on stream. I want to see the House of Commons owned by its real proprietors, the people of the United Kingdom, and I will strain every muscle and sinew to bring this about.

The Speaker has indirect influence as well. As I mentioned earlier, the mood within the House had changed last summer and the desperate need for internal reform was recognised. An elected committee of MPs led by Tony Wright was set up and asked to make recommendations for change at the parliamentary equivalent of warp speed. This was an exercise which was received with understandable scepticism, even raw cynicism, within Westminster as well as beyond it. Any recommendations would, after all, almost certainly involve authority seeping from the executive back to the legislature and as the former controlled the latter how likely was that to happen? I suspect that even some of the hardy souls who sat on the Wright Committee itself doubted whether their findings would ever find their way to the floor of the House at all, never mind be adopted and be in place for the outset of the next Parliament.

Yet that is precisely what has happened. The Wright Committee published its report last November. There was an initial debate on those findings in February and earlier this month not only those proposals which the Government had accepted but a host of more radical measures were approved by the House of Commons. By the standards of Westminster what has taken place is little short of a quiet revolution. A House Business Committee and a House Backbench Business Committee are to be established. The Chairs of Select Committees and all members of those Select Committees will be directly elected ending an absurd situation in which those responsible for the scrutiny of the executive were appointed to that position at the behest of the executive. The right of backbenchers to place their own motions before the House has been restored. An entirely new and potentially highly inclusive petitions system has been put in place. The three Deputy Speakers of the House of Commons will, in future, be directly elected by fellow MPs, not picked by the Whips.

This is a truly sweeping package of reform which extends well beyond anything which was imagined 12 months ago. It was not for the Speaker to tell how MPs to vote for this or that measure, although virtually all of the Wright Committee proposals were also in the manifesto which I offered at the time of my election, but it emphatically was for the Speaker to ensure that Members of Parliament had the chance to cast votes one way or the other on these reforms which I was proud to do.

Finally, in this tour de horizon I come to outreach. I devoted a whole speech to this subject last November so I will provide only a succinct summary tonight. It is my strong belief that the Speaker has to take a lead in reconnecting parliament and the public. I have therefore travelled throughout the United Kingdom to address schools, university students, voluntary groups, charitable organisations and other elements of civic society. I had the honour of overseeing the debates of the Youth Parliament in the chamber of the House of Commons itself last October, the first but I hope not the last time that a body of people other than MPs have been seen and heard there. I have personally visited the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly to discern what lessons we might learn from those institutions in how they make themselves more open to their electorates. I have made about 25 external trips, received almost 50 groups of various kinds in the House of Commons and hosted or facilitated approaching 100 events in Speaker’s House.

I have established a Speaker’s Advisory Council on Public Engagement, a voluntary committee under the chairmanship of Andy Street, the Managing Director of John Lewis, which held its first meeting last week. This body will provide outside advice on the many programmes which the House of Commons has already introduced in terms of outreach and, crucially, will serve as a vehicle in the next Parliament for truly big picture, blue sky thinking as to what Parliament needs to do to convince the public not only that it has reformed but that it is really relevant to them. This is not, in my opinion, an optional extra for the House of Commons but it has to be utterly central to any notion of a collective mission statement for the years to come.

This is the platform on which the next Parliament could and should choose to build. I will, in short order, set out ten suggestions which I think are worthy of consideration.

Before that, though, I would like to set out three overarching principles or themes. First, that the House of Commons in its own right should be a stronger check and balance on the Government. Second, that the opportunities available to the individual Member of Parliament as an inquisitor and legislator should be enhanced. Third, that the debating chamber itself should reclaim its central role in the life of the House of Commons.

Let me set out what I mean by each of those themes in a little more detail.

First, the House of Commons as a check and balance. It would be wrong to assert, as is sometimes done, that there are no checks and balances at all within the British system of government. This charge, essentially one of “elective dictatorship”, is too stark, sweeping and simplistic. What is unusual about the operation of checks and balances in Britain is not their complete absence but that they are at base political rather than institutional in character. What I mean by this is that the real checks and balances on a Prime Minister or Government are those of the Cabinet, the political party and public opinion, notably the popularity or not of a political position or an administration overall with the electorate. These checks and balances can be very effective as was witnessed when the expenses scandal first erupted. They are checks and balances with real merit but they need to be supplemented by meaningful institutional checks and balances. The rules and sentiments, of the House of Commons should be a more formal check and balance on the executive too. It is important for the House of Commons to be more formal about its own authority and be willing to enshrine powers as it reclaims them, as it demonstrated its capacity to do with the Wright Committee reforms. If we need to codify conventions to ensure that they are respected then we should do just that.

Second, the individual Member of Parliament as an inquisitor and legislator. There are many avenues open to those who want to be a truly effective Member of Parliament, a lot more than some inside the House might imagine, but a lot of those avenues can be quite difficult to locate. We need to do far more to make the full range of the parliamentary toolkit more obvious to those who might then like to employ those resources. We need to create more openings for individual MPs to pose oral questions directly to ministers on extremely topical matters, exactly those matters which are engaging the attention of the country on any given day. We need also to revive the tradition of the Private Member’s Bill which was once a famous device for ensuring fundamental reforms arrived on the statute book but which seems to have become far less significant in the past two decades. A reasonable measure for the practical strength of the House of Commons as a whole is, in my view, the personal political strength of the individual backbench member. It is impossible to conceive of a stronger House collectively which does not involve stronger MPs individually. As Kipling put it “the strength of the pack is the wolf but the strength of the wolf is the pack”. I think that MPs need more opportunities to ask questions and to write the law.

Finally, the revival of the chamber. It is a sad fact that many senior members believe that the chamber has become a less important place in the course of their careers. It is a sentiment shared, I think, by the public at large. Even before the expenses explosion occurred, it was entirely common for ordinary citizens to make the following three observations about the House of Commons:

  1. The only time that the place seems to be full is at Prime Minister’s Questions when they all shout at one another
  2. On almost all other occasions the green benches seem to be deserted, and
  3. They are not there that often anyway because they have such outrageously long “holidays”.

These observations are spectacularly harsh in many respects but we would be foolish to ignore them or not to appreciate the corrosive effect that they have on our reputation. The cruel reality of the expenses nightmare is that at a time when MPs individually and collectively have never worked harder, their standing has rarely been lower. Much of that effort is, alas, invisible to the country at large because it does not occur on the floor of the House of Commons where it can be seen on television or reported in the newspapers. I am convinced that if the chamber became more relevant to MPs, the House would become more relevant to the country. One prime example is that, to show the House is legislating for the country, people reasonably expect a good number of MPs to be visibly taking part in that process.

In pursuit of that end, we need to be realistic and to allow that realism to shape reform. MPs are incredibly cross-pressured people for whom time is an enemy not a friend. Their lives are shaped by often competing rather than complementary demands on them. These are what I would call the five “Cs” – the chamber, committees of the House, constituency engagements, casework for individual constituents and campaigning on issues of every hue. We will not and should not abolish the other four Cs in order to make one particular C, the chamber, more central. What we have to do instead is seek devices for linking the other Cs to the chamber far more intimately. We need to bring committee reports into the chamber, make it easier to raise constituency matters in the chamber, allow casework to enter the chamber where that is appropriate and ensure that campaigning is done in as well as outside the chamber. The chamber has to be seen as pivotal to all the reforms that the House may consider.

So here are the ten areas which I think worthy of exploration in the next Parliament.

The first consists of the House establishing control of its own sittings. One of the Wright Committee recommendations that has been accepted is that the new House should have the chance to decide whether or not it intends to sit this September. I am particularly pleased about this as I have made it clear that I favour this arrangement. It is exceptionally odd that the executive is not scrutinised for something like a dozen weeks in the summer. It would be valuable, however, to traverse further in this direction. The dates when the House sits should be the subject of a vote in the chamber rather than determined uniquely by the Government of the day. Furthermore, it is my strong conviction that if major incidents or developments occur during a recess, the Speaker should have the authority to recall the House if he or she receives a high number of written submissions from Members of Parliament asking that the House return.

The second, which might sound technical or even nerdy, is that I think the time has come for a comprehensive overhaul of the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. It is widely recognised that the procedures of the House are complex. By and large, there are good reasons for this complexity, but it doesn’t make them any more comprehensible. We know that whatever the exact result there will be a huge number of new MPs entering Westminster at the next general election. This should be the trigger for a root-and-branch revision of Standing Orders with the aim of producing a shorter and simpler set of rules.

The third involves Private Members Bills. As I alluded to a little while ago, these were once one of the most significant aspects of the work of the House of Commons. That can still be true but there is a widespread sense that they have become a less serious influence than they once were. This is in large part because there is so little parliamentary time that is made available for them and the time that exists occurs on a Friday when many MPs will, for perfectly sound reasons, want to be engaged in constituency activities. The resources available to support those MPs who want to place legislation on the statute book can be very modest indeed. I believe a new Parliament should want to see the revival of the Private Members Bill and that the best way for making progress here would be by moving this aspect of our business away from a Friday morning and putting it at the heart of the parliamentary week.

The fourth is oral questions. To put it candidly there is a strong case for more of them. At the moment a month or slightly longer can pass between, for example, sessions of Treasury or Foreign Affairs questions taking place and momentous events can be missed as a consequence. If we were to expand the amount of time available each day for questions to 80 minutes, for instance, that would enable questions to two rather than one department to be heard and for scrutiny to be far more timely and topical. That can only be of assistance to individual MPs and to the House as a whole.

The fifth concerns debates themselves. Although the use of the Urgent Question has helped in this regard it remains the case that we have too many general debates which are very general and not much of a debate and too few short and sharp exchanges on subjects which are on the mind of the electorate. A number of suggestions have been made for improvements in this regard, including an intriguing proposal by Sir George Young, the Shadow Leader of the House, which would allow the Opposition to trade the time now awarded to it for lengthy set-piece discussions for a larger number of short debates on subjects which address issues of the hour. I am convinced that it should be possible to obtain cross-party support for an innovation of this kind and that the end result would be more MPs taking part in the chamber.

The sixth concerns the inquisition of Lords Ministers. This is an issue on which I have been campaigning – in so far as a Speaker can “campaign” - for some time. It strikes me as very strange indeed that Cabinet members who are responsible for extremely important areas of Whitehall, such as Business and Transport, are at liberty to speak to the media as often as they like but can address and face inquiries from MPs only in the limited fora of Select Committees. I have sought to convince colleagues that the constitutional sky would not fall in if we were to permit key Lords Ministers to face questions from all MPs in Westminster Hall, the subsidiary chamber of the Commons, on an initially experimental basis. This is a more considerable challenge than it might seem in that there are some MPs who are concerned that more legitimacy for Lords Ministers would mean more of them, which they do not care for, and there are many members of the House of Lords who instinctively recoil from any change which might imply that their chamber is somehow inferior and should be subservient to the elected House of Commons. Despite this, the House of Commons Procedure Committee has this week endorsed the blueprint which I put to them and this means we have the chance in the next Parliament, subject to their being departmental Cabinet ministers who occupy the red benches, to see this particular reform through.

The seventh involves Written Questions. I observed that I had introduced a tracking system for these replies. This could and should be extended further. I think ministers and members would benefit from the discipline of a formal deadline for responses which could be breached only in very unusual circumstances and in a public fashion. I appreciate that ministers are very busy individuals and that departments have many calls on their times and resources but I am of the uncompromising disposition that a question asked by a Member of Parliament should have the highest possible priority. A formal deadline with a “naming and shaming” process for departments which fall short of it would have a salutary effect on Whitehall and should be welcomed. We might also benefit from a committee to assess the quality of answers.

The eighth relates to pre-legislative scrutiny. This is a complicated area of parliamentary process but the basic principle behind it is that legislation would be improved by a longer and more thoughtful look at it than is often allowed. At the moment it is for the Government, via the Whips, to decide which Bills should be assigned for pre-legislative scrutiny. It is worth considering whether others should be involved in this as well and, in addition, whether this is a reform which the House of Commons and the House of Lords should be approaching in tandem, not separately.

The penultimate change involves Select Committees. By agreeing that their Chairs and members should be directly elected by the whole House, MPs have enhanced the status of these already very important institutions. It is now right to wonder whether extra powers should accompany extra prestige. There is a robust argument that Select Committees should be able to compel witnesses to attend their hearings, should hear that evidence on oath with real repercussions for false testimony and should have time dedicated on the floor of the House for the reports they produce to be fully debated.

Finally, and most tentatively, I believe the time may have come to ask whether Prime Minister’s Questions is all that it could be. At its best, PMQs provides the sort of drama, electricity and serious scrutiny that could not be matched in any other legislative chamber in the world. We should not forget how unusual we are in obliging the Head of Government to respond to individual MPs. At its worst, by contrast, it can resemble the sort of blood sport that has long been outlawed in this country. I think we need to ask whether PMQs would be better held on a Thursday rather than a Wednesday and whether if it were longer in duration with the party leaders less dominant and backbench MPs more valued players the nature of this encounter would be improved. This is not an area where I am able, or would want, to issue orders but it is so important to how the House of Commons is seen that it must be worth debating. In the next Parliament we will have a Procedure Committee with a chair who has been elected by MPs in a secret ballot. I would be very content if it were to investigate, on a bi-partisan basis, whether a different PMQs format might produce better results.

This has been an address thick with detail and I am grateful for your patience. I hope that I have demonstrated that much positive has been done in the last year of this Parliament and that there is much more that could be done in the new House of Commons which will emerge in a matter of weeks. Politics is, as often observed, "the art of the possible". The possible does not always have to be the incremental. The House of Commons we would want could and should be realised. Thank You."

Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA

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